Free speech on cam­puses is about ed­u­ca­tion, not leg­is­la­tion

The Review - - OPINION - Lata Nott Colum­nist Lata Nott is ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the First Amend­ment Cen­ter of the Free­dom Fo­rum In­sti­tute.

Last week, my First Amend­ment Cen­ter col­league, Ken Paulson, tes­ti­fied at a Con­gres­sional hear­ing on First Amend­ment rights on col­lege cam­puses.

Paulson serves as dean of the Col­lege of Me­dia and En­ter­tain­ment at Mid­dle Tennessee State Univer­sity and is the for­mer editor-in-chief of USA TO­DAY.

Be­low are ex­cerpts from Paulson’s tes­ti­mony about col­le­giate con­flict over free speech rights.

“My move into academia was ac­tu­ally a late ca­reer de­ci­sion. My years in Amer­i­can jour­nal­ism were grat­i­fy­ing and this felt like the op­por­tu­nity to get back. Be­ing on a cam­pus over the past five years has been both re­ward­ing and eye-open­ing.

“I have to ad­mit I ini­tially looked at our stu­dents as a gen­er­a­tion sim­i­lar to my own. Ex­ter­nally we cer­tainly were ... But I quickly dis­cov­ered this is an en­tirely new gen­er­a­tion. They’re the Google gen­er­a­tion. Young peo­ple for whom an­swers have al­ways been mil­lisec­onds away. They’re amaz­ing mul­ti­taskers, but there’s a draw­back to the ‘Google-it’ cul­ture.

“If you can al­ways ac­cess in­for­ma­tion, you don’t have to mem­o­rize it or even think deeply about it. That’s par­tic­u­larly the case with Amer­ica’s most fun­da­men­tal free­doms. To be clear, I deeply ad­mire the work of watch­dog or­ga­ni­za­tions like the Foun­da­tion of In­di­vid­ual Rights in Ed­u­ca­tion, who through a com­bi­na­tion of watch­ful­ness, lit­i­ga­tion and pub­lic­ity shine a light on col­lege cam­puses where ad­min­is­tra­tors and some­times stu­dents pay lip ser­vice to free­dom of speech. The work they do is in­valu­able.

“But I also must tell you that when I see ... news sto­ries about stu­dents shout­ing down speak­ers or col­lege ad­min­is­tra­tors en­gag­ing in heavy-handed tac­tics, I don’t see my own cam­pus. Seventy per­cent of the stu­dents at Mid­dle Tennessee State Univer­sity are the first in their fam­i­lies to at­tend col­lege. Their con­cerns are pay­ing for school, stay­ing in school and mak­ing good enough grades to get a job when they leave. That’s a dy­namic you will find at uni­ver­si­ties all over Amer­ica.

“As part of my First Amend­ment work, I trav­eled on av­er­age to maybe a dozen cam­puses a year for the past 20 years and I hon­estly don’t be­lieve that there’s an epi­demic of sup­pres­sion or in­tol­er­ance in the na­tion’s uni­ver­si­ties. I do see some high-pro­file in­stances where col­lege ad­min­is­tra­tors and stu­dents are will­ing to bend free-speech prin­ci­ples to pre­vent hurt feel­ings or ide­o­log­i­cal con­flict ... the land of the free has be­come the home of the eas­ily of­fended.

“There are some who see freespeech lim­i­ta­tions and ask for Congress to do some­thing. But with all due re­spect, this is not about leg­is­la­tion. This is about ed­u­ca­tion. You can’t shout down a speaker if you truly un­der­stand how di­ver­sity of opin­ions have bol­stered our democ­racy. You can’t cen­sor stu­dents or their me­dia if you un­der­stand what Thomas Jef­fer­son, James Madi­son and the first gen­er­a­tion of Amer­i­cans meant by free­dom of the press . ...

“But too many of our stu­dents and sadly, their par­ents and grand­par­ents, don’t truly un­der­stand th­ese core Amer­i­can prin­ci­ples. The First Amend­ment Cen­ter sur­vey showed that a full third of Amer­i­cans can­not name a sin­gle free­dom in the First Amend­ment and only 2 per­cent can name all five. I won’t put you on the spot this morn­ing.

“Hav­ing the right to say what­ever we want does us no good if no one is will­ing to lis­ten. The most Amer­i­can of val­ues are in the First Amend­ment. It’s not a co­in­ci­dence that the most vi­brant, am­bi­tious, strong­est, most dy­namic coun­try in the his­tory of the planet is also the most free.”

Paulson told the com­mit­tee that any and all who in­flu­ence stu­dent lives at any point in their aca­demic ca­reers “have two over­rid­ing obli­ga­tions” — de­vel­op­ing great pro­fes­sion­als and “to grad­u­ate great cit­i­zens who un­der­stand what this na­tion is all about. Amer­ica is de­pend­ing upon us.”

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